A carbohydrate is like the internet. It can either help or harm you — it just depends on how and when you consume it.
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“You want to find the right balance,” says registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD.
Patton explains why carbs shouldn’t be diet enemy number one and the best time of day to eat them.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap. But they’re one of three essential macronutrients, along with fat and protein.
“Carbohydrates turn into glucose, or sugar, in your body. Your body converts that glucose into energy,” says Patton. “Carbs are your body’s main and preferred energy source.”
- Grains and starches: Opt for whole-grain options when it comes to bread, cereal, rice and pasta.
- Legumes: Legumes are also a great source of plant-based protein. These sources include split peas, lentils and beans.
- Fruit: Patton recommends whole fruit, with its skin intact. “But some fruit is better than no fruit,” she notes. “So, if canned fruit is more accessible or affordable, that’s OK, too. Just get it packed in water or juice and strain it.”
- Vegetables: These healthy carbs are also full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Veggies rich in carbs include potatoes, corn, root vegetables and squashes.
- Milk: Milk is a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D.
When is the best time to eat carbs?
“Most foods and food groups contain carbohydrates, so you want to find the right balance,” says Patton. “If you’re an average, healthy person, eat some carbs with each of your meals throughout the day.”
But consuming carbs earlier in the day may be better if you:
- Want to lose weight or improve blood sugar levels: “Most Americans are active early in the day and more sedentary at night,” says Patton. “Having your biggest portion of carbs in the evening can cause a blood sugar spike. Your body then stores the extra glucose that you didn’t use for energy as body fat.”
- Exercise in the morning: “If you’re exercising in the morning for less than an hour, it’s OK to exercise on an empty stomach and get in the fat-burning zone,” notes Patton. “But if you’re more of an endurance athlete or exercising for more than an hour, you may need a small pre-workout snack. In either case, it’s good to have carbs to help you refuel after.”
- Have trouble sleeping: “Eating carbs at dinner can affect your sleep if you go to bed while your food is still digesting, especially if you have heartburn.”
To get the energy-fueling benefits, you need to consume the right kind of carbs. Patton says that eating sugary, processed foods can quickly spike your blood sugar. As a result, you may feel hungry just one to two hours later — and eat even more. The same can happen if you eat only carbs and don’t get enough protein and fat.
The best time to eat carbs when you practice intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is eating and fasting during certain windows of time. If you follow this type of eating pattern, Patton says it’s OK to eat carbs throughout your entire window — even if your goal is weight loss or if you have diabetes or prediabetes. “But during that eight-hour window, try to control the total amount of carbs you’re eating,” she recommends.
What should your daily carb intake be?
Patton says following the plate method is an easy way to make sure you’re eating the right amount of carbohydrates. Start with a 9-inch plate. Fill half of it with vegetables, one quarter with protein and one quarter with carbs.
If you’re an athlete or physically active, dividing your plate into thirds may better fuel your day. But Patton recommends keeping macronutrients balanced at every meal. “Your body can only absorb so much protein at once. It processes fuel most efficiently in smaller, more frequent doses. So be consistent throughout the day: Eat three meals and two to three snacks.”
How to eat the right amount of carbs consistently
If your carb-eating habits leave something to be desired, Patton says these tips can get you on the path to a well-balanced diet:
- Log what you consume: “Some apps can show you what your total percentage of calories from carbs is,” she says. “These apps usually give a visual representation, such as a pie graph, for each of the meals. That way, you can better track your carb consumption.”
- Go European: “The European style of eating tends to involve consuming your biggest meal at lunch,” notes Patton. “Since many Americans have dinner as their biggest meal, it can be as simple as swapping the two and making dinner your lighter meal.”
- Indulge in leftovers: “If you keep dinner as your bigger meal, try to eat the protein, vegetable and a smaller portion of the carb,” Patton suggests. “Then pack those leftovers for lunch the next day and have the protein and vegetables with a bigger portion of the carbs.”